Emmylou Harris
   and Linda Ronstadt

Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt

It's easy to think of Harris and Ronstadt's new Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions as Duo; the only thing missing is Dolly Parton, which is like saying the only thing missing from daylight is the sun. That said, the trio's first record in 1987 beats all hell out of this year's Trio II, which is pure TNN-meets-VH1 cornpone -- or, the sound of three gorgeous voices doing little more than sounding gorgeous, which grates after, like, three minutes. Maybe that's why Western Wall is a triumph by comparison: The material, finally, is worthy of Harris and even Ronstadt, who hasn't sounded this good since...well, ever. Or maybe it's just a remarkable record on its own merits, one of those superstar collaborations that lives up to its billing because it tries so hard to live it down. That is, Harris and Ronstadt stay out of each other's way, never singing above a whisper as they cooperate instead of compete. Never in a million years could anyone imagine Ronstadt owning Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy," but there she is lurking in the shadows, the reformed choirgirl turning a moan into a hymn. Almost makes you forget her albums of standards with Nelson Riddle (Sinatra could have taught the girl something about respect), her Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon and Randy Newman abominations, those discs full of MOR canciones, and the cheese pastries she cooked up with Aaron Neville. Sometimes you gotta forgive to forget.

Harris, of course, is the Credible Artist here: Her 1996 album Wrecking Ball stands as the triumph of a career spent proving Gram Parsons was right about her after all. Wrecking Ball proved what the right material, right singer, and right producer could do at the right time, even if the best thing about that ethereal disc was how Harris overcame Daniel Lanois' penchant for mistaking production for ambience; maybe Lanois' trickery just made her work that much harder, which separates the journeywomen from the immortals. Western Wall sounds like something of a sequel -- lush and layered, with so much going on in the soft-focus background (bruised and buried vocals, guitars reduced to echoes of echoes, brushes massaging drum kits), the music sounds almost three-dimensional. Maybe that's the result of working with old pro Glyn Johns, best known for producing old pros such as The Who, the Eagles, Boz Scaggs, and the Rolling Stones. The man's been so far around the block, he's back home again, adding just enough to make it all sound so heavenly and effortless.

There's not a clinker in the batch, save for Jackson Browne's "For a Dancer"; maybe it's just something about being loyal to old El Lay pals, but the song sounds out of place, like something mercifully excised from Living in the U.S.A. Best cuts: one song written by Harris (the gamboling and eerie "Raise the Dead"), another by Harris and Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff (the roiling "Sweet Spot," which more than finds it), the apropos cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Across the Border" (featuring Neil Young, who, unfortunately, ain't making the tour), and Rosanne Cash's title song. It works live, too if the duo's Today show appearance a few weeks ago was any indication. Then, what else do you expect from old pros with nothing to prove and nothing to lose?

Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky